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David Foster Wallace

The Pale King and I By Marie Mundaca

About 15 years ago, I fell in love with David Foster Wallace. Although, at first I didn’t like him. I saw an article about him in The New York Times Magazine, and thought, Cute, but I bet that book sucks. The New York Times has bad taste. And the stupid book was ridiculously long and about tennis. TENNIS! Who cares about tennis? Not me! I almost failed tennis in college! I read it anyway.

It’s not an overestimation to say that Infinite Jest changed my life. I was a big reader before, reading all the hipster classics of the ‘90s, but Wallace opened up my world to authors like Barth and Barthelme and Sukenick, to philosophers like Rorty and Lyotard and Barthes. I know, too many Bs. I started writing essays about my love for Wallace online and became known as “the girl who stalks David Foster Wallace.” Someone referred to my essays as “eroticized hagiography.” It was an exciting time for me.

Then I started working at Little, Brown and got to design some of his books, talk to him on the phone, shake his hand. I went from “in love” to just pure love. He was like a beloved cousin now—a beloved cousin who changed my life.

The Pale King is the most recent David Foster Wallace book I’ve designed. It may be the last, but who knows what will pop up?

When I design books, I usually read most or all of the book before I start designing—not a close read, but I want to know the plot and the characters so I can think about what fonts would best represent them. Do I want a dense, gray page, or a light, airy page? Are the characters more masculine or more feminine? If there are long sections of letters, how will the reader react to the italic font of this face? And can I use Dalliance? I love that font.

I knew pretty much what I wanted to do with TPK, but I also was anxious to read it in manuscript form. We Wallace fans had been hearing about “this longer thing” he was working on, “a brick”—those were two ways he referred to it. And we’d all followed the story of his widow, Karen Green, along with his agent Bonnie Nadell and editor Michael Pietsch, gathering up years of disks and manuscript pages, piecing everything together. I even had a dream about it once, running into Pietsch getting off a bus with a duffel bag full of pages.

As it turned out, it was too distracting and sad for me to read while I was designing it. Wallace’s tiny, pointy notes were all over the manuscript copy, mostly name changes and corrections and small additions. One character, Elise Prout, used to be a “G3,” and a phrase that said “been squashed like a cartoon character” was changed to “worn the brown helmet.” His notes reminded me of the post-it notes that would come back to me on galley pages of the essay “Host” from Consider the Lobster—notes that said things like “Totally bitchingly great”—and I remembered that I no longer lived in a world where David Foster Wallace was alive.

I’ve read about one-third of the book so far. I’m in no hurry. I’ve also read the stuff that’s been available for everyone to read, Like “Good People” and “Spine,” both of which ran in The New Yorker. I still don’t know what The Pale King is about in the big way. Then again, I still don’t really know what Infinite Jest is about either, beyond the pithy “addiction.” I guess in pithy terms, TPK is about Zen. It’s been flashed around that DFW was writing a book about boredom, and TPK is partially about boredom, but only insofar as boredom can lead to stillness and then joy.

What I’ve discovered so far is that everyone in TPK is exceptional in some way. One character tries to kiss every part of his own body, one has highly useless psychic powers, one sweats too much. It’s as if they were all on the verge of being superheroes, but something went awry at the superpower machine. Their exceptional natures cause them much angst. And then somehow they all end up at the temple of stillness, the Internal Revenue Service.  It’s kind of funny to think of the IRS as a Zen temple, but in The Pale King, it is. Instead of sweeping floors and getting smacked by monks, they check tax forms.

For those who are fans of DFW, they will find all the Wallace-y stuff they love so well: footnotes, chapter-long paragraphs, twisty sentences, challenging words, and references to Mister Squishee. I giggled at all the old familiar Wallace stuff each time I came upon it, and an urban legend reference, introduced in the form of a newspaper article, made me feel validated in my personal theory that parts of Infinite Jest were not actually “real” in the IJ universe.  The Pale King feels very alive to me, and each time I pick it up, I find some reason to get excited. Because Wallace and I were contemporaries in the large sense—both born in the ’60s—I’ve always felt a tinge of kinship with him. We have the same reference points. The world he writes about is the world I live in. It’s fucked up and full of allusions to television, and people are unhappy but good. His people, at their core, are good people. His world is imbued with hopeful melancholy, and its realness is accentuated by tiny details.

First-time readers—and I hope there are many—will be introduced to a strange, complicated world populated by people who are exactly like people we really know, but much deeper and sadder and more capable of greatness than we ever know. For you new readers, I hope this book changes your life like Infinite Jest changed mine.

I went to a weird college that required two credits of gym, and each gym class was one credit. I tried each semester to get the requirement waived, and failed in those efforts, and ended up having to take tennis and fencing back-to-back during my last semester. I wanted to take bowling—it was the easiest of the gyms, but it required a car to get to the bowling alley. Despite doing poorly in fencing, the instructor, who in real life was an English professor, gave me a B+. He knew I tried my best. But the tennis teacher! He gave us homework. Homework in a one-credit gym class! He gave me a B-. I was livid. I showed up, I played—badly, but I played.

I was sick at the time, and spent a lot of time of buses because I couldn’t walk the four blocks to the subway. New York City mass transit is great for getting reading done.

I don’t have any secret info, sorry.

Garamond and Gotham.

There were moments in my life where this thought would suddenly pop into my head: I live in a world where David Foster Wallace lives. It was a thought that was both comforting and exciting to me. It made me feel like the world was a place where anything could happen, even something as crazy as me talking to DFW on the phone.

There is much literature and research that says that meditation practices can be very helpful in managing mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. a And meditation practice is something that Wallace spoke about in “Good Old Neon,” a story in the collection Oblivion.
This gets into territory I don’t really want to get into, but, you know, like the elephant, gorilla, etc., they’re big and in the room. I think that DFW had researched a lot about things that were purported to relieve depression, to stop the thoughts from coming. Because I suffer from depression myself, I saw this in his writing all the way back when I read IJ. His descriptions of depression and depressed people were too accurate to have come from someone who was not familiar with the illness. I can’t read “Good Old Neon” now, and I may never read it again. Although I was horrified when I heard about his death, I was not as shocked as others. It was all there, in his books.

It’s not spelled “Mr. Squishy” in this book, as it is in the eponymous story in Oblivion.

(April 2011)